Describing Description

Landscape - Odessa Crater, Courtesy David Byrne

I know a few people who don’t agree with Confused Matthew‘s opinions on movies, even if he has good points to make. But one thing that took me aback was how much I appreciated him pointing out that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t really do much in a narrative sense. Oh, it was masterfully shot and the attention to detail is peerless. This is Kubrick we’re talking about, after all. But the first ten minutes of the film have been described by Matthew as the following:

“…Landscape.”

He shows a shot from the film and says that no less than a dozen times. Kubrick is describing the Dawn of Man, but he goes to laborious lengths doing so. It’s a good way to illustrate how not to over-illustrate, especially when it comes to words. But can you get away with telling a story that has no description whatsoever?

Let’s find out.

Don’t Describe

Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is a legendary author for a good reason. He practically defined the high fantasy genre as we know it. And he did so with rather large novels. Most of his books are spent describing the people, places and events of Middle-Earth, and a lot of that description is drier than a Jacob’s Creme cracker in the middle of Death Valley. He got away with it because he was pretty much the first in his field.

Your story needs to move. Your characters need to speak, act, shoot bullets from their guns and knock boots. Events need to change history, shape nations and alter landscapes. How are these things going to happen if you stop to describe something? That’s right, they won’t.

It’s like one of those big, nasty sharks that prowl the deep waters. If the story stops moving, it’ll suffocate. It won’t happen quickly, either. It’ll creep up on you. Stop to describe someone or something, even for a moment, and the next thing you know the story’s belly-up. Dead in the water.

Don’t Not Describe

Orson Scott Card

Let’s talk about another relatively well-known author: Orson Scott Card. He doesn’t describe shit. His writing moves right along from one point to the next without stopping to even flesh out his characters in words other than the occasional mention of an ethnicity.

Can you get away with this? Maybe, if you’re dealing with a mainstream or even slightly known genre. If you’re trying to pioneer a concept, get something new off of the ground, chances are you’re going to be inventing something. And your readers won’t know what this invention is unless you describe it.

If you must describe something, be sparing in your description. Get the basics down and move on. Like everything else you write, the less you linger on something the better. You don’t want conversations or chase scenes or lovemaking to bang on and on for page after page. The same goes for your descriptions. Remember that whole “story belly-up in the water” image I conjured a couple paragraphs ago? Keep that in mind.

Description or Lack Thereof is Irrelevant

Remember that a good story is about something. You probably have a theme or purpose in mind for it. If you don’t, you probably should. Once you do there needs to be one cardinal question asked, not just about descriptions but also about dialog, action, even jokes. How does it serve the story as a whole?

Sure, your house made out of bread might be awesome. But what does it matter in the grand scheme of your tale? Why should the reader care? If they shouldn’t, leave it out. But if you want to try something new, and a reader may not have a frame of reference, use a sparing description. Illustrate the basics with a few choice words and then get the hell on with the good stuff.

The more focused you are on the important things in your narrative, the more focused your reader will be. And everybody will be happier as a result.

2 Comments

  1. Orson Scott Card writes almost entirely speculative fiction and I’ve never really had trouble figuring out what he was talking about. He describes things, just not people. Knowing the colour of someone’s eyes isn’t going to tell me anything about the world, after all. He also does a lot of the description-in-dialogue thing.

    I know what you’re getting at, though, I’m just sayin’. Card may be a dickhole but give the man credit where it’s due. 😛

  2. JRR Tolkien got away with overdescribing everything not only because he was pretty much the mack daddy of the fantasy genre as it stands today, but because he wasn’t writing a character-driven story. To hell with Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn and all those other half-wits… Middle-Earth was the main character in those books. Tolkien wrote a milieu story, in which the setting was the most important factor, and everyone else just happened to be interacting with it. 🙂

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